This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.
Today, let’s discuss the twenty-sixth definition, part VII, number 3 of 5:
From the murk into light the body goes out of the womb, but soul enters the body from the light into darkness. The sight of the body is the eye; but that of soul is Nous. Just as a body which as (got) no eyes sees nothing, likewise a soul which has (got) no Nous is blind. Whatever the (babe) in the womb will crave for, so will the pregnant woman desire the same; likewise whatever (Nous) in soul will crave for, so will man desire the same.
Ah, yet another comparison between the development of the soul in the body and the development of the body in the womb! Yet what’s that? This is actually a contrasting statement for once! Before we’ve only ever seen things that liken the soul/body and body/womb images, but here we get an inversion. “From the murk into light the body goes out of the womb”; simple enough. The body, once formed, leaves the womb from a small enclosed space with little to sense, witness, or experience into the greater world as an independent being. Its eyes are opened and it can finally see. However, the case is different from the soul and the body. When the soul enters the body, it does so “from the light into darkness”. It’s like the reverse of the body and the womb; the body cannot really be un-born, but if it were, it’d also enter into darkness from light. Thus, the soul, in order to develop, has to be taken out of a bigger world and put into a darker, corruptible body. This implies some sort of affectation or impediment on the soul, especially given the connotation of “light” here.
Recall that “light is a good, a clear vision, which makes appear all of the visible things” (II.6). It is good when we enter into light, which helps us see and sense and make intelligible the things in the world to ourselves. Thus, it is good when a body is born from the womb, since it enters into light and is then able to see; after all, “the sight of the body is the eye”, and “eyes [see] all corporeal things” (V.1). However, when the soul enters the body, it enters into darkness, and thus it cannot see. Or can it? If the eye is the sight of the body, then “that of soul is Nous”, and “Nous sees everything” (V.1). We know that all of Man has the capability for Nous, but does not always possess it depending on their progress towards Nous through Logos (V.3).
So, when a body is born from a womb, its eyes are free and open to see the world; while in the womb, it cannot see, since it has no eyes apart from that which are in the womb. What about the soul, though? “Just as a body which has got no eyes sees nothing, likewise a soul which has got no Nous is blind.” The Nous, which sees everything, allows the soul to likewise see everything just as Man is able to be part of the entire world and not just any single part (VII.2). However, not all souls are given Nous, and so some souls are blind. It is by the development of our souls through using the entirety of the essence of Man that we can obtain and be gifted with Nous, enabling our souls to see clearly, and thus reenter into light. After all, light is a good, just as the Nous is the Good; light and Nous are very tightly coupled. We don’t call it “enlightenment” for nothing, after all. By entering into light, we enter into the Nous, and thus enter into God, which is everywhere at all times, just as Man is in all parts of the world at all times. However, just as the world exists only as one part of God, individual humans exist only as one part of Man and in one part of the world at any given time.
Now we start to get a better notion of what this whole “perfection of the soul” thing is. When is the soul ready to leave the body? When is the soul fully formed? We’ve read comparisons saying that the soul develops in the body just as a body is developed in the womb, but we haven’t seen what that completion criterion might be. Now we do: it’s when the soul is given Nous. After all, when a body is fully formed in the womb, it has all the parts and pieces of the body that should be there, not least of which are eyes, which is sight; sight is only used, or rather the eyes are only used, once the body leaves the womb, “from the murk into light”. Entering into light is the mark of full development; thus, when the soul can see again, it can be considered fully developed within the body and can attain perfection, “from the murk into light”. Thus, to know God, to be gifted with Nous and to serve it with reasonable speech, this is the mark of perfection in the soul.
Of course, the soul was already in light to begin with; after all, it “enters the body from the light into darkness”. Thus, the soul was already in contact with and part of the Nous; the soul, then, comes from Nous. We already know that “every move of soul is perceived by Nous” (II.6), but to say that souls come from Nous is interesting. Where else would they come from, though? They are not sensible, and so cannot be part of the world; they are only intelligible, and thus part of God that dwells within the world. When the soul enters the body, it becomes separated or cut off somehow, entering into darkness and therefore separation from God where it can no longer see or maintain contact with God. This is an interesting idea, but goes along with the division of the cosmos into the world, heaven, God, and the like. After all, the soul inhabits a sensible body, which can only sense other sensible things; God is not sensible, and so God cannot be sensed by the body, though it dwells within and as a part of God. Just as the body within the womb cannot sense things outside the womb, the soul within the sensible body cannot sense things outside the sensible bodies it can sense.
The body within the womb develops according to how it must, and in order to develop properly, it requires certain needs: food, drink, activity, and the like. We often joke about mothers eating bizarre things like pickles and ice cream at midnight while pregnant, but that’s not wholly unfounded; dehydration, exhaustion, pica, and similar conditions can happen to women who aren’t preparing for a proper pregnancy. This was known even in ancient times: “whatever the babe in the womb will crave for, so will the pregnant woman desire the same”. The same holds true for the Nous and the soul while the soul develop in the body: “whatever Nous in soul will crave for, so will man desire the same”. Nous is the core function of the soul, the heart of the soul, the home of the soul, and it is Nous that guides the soul and provides it with the impetus for the motion the soul gives to the body. The needs of the Nous are, thus, the needs of the soul. While the soul develops in the body, the needs of the soul must be tended to, and so the body that develops a soul will be driven to act in whatever ways the soul needs to benefit from.
Of course, just like a mother who denies eating or acting right to provide for the proper development of her child, a human can ignore the impulses the soul gives him so as to provide for the proper development of the soul. It’s like speech: whereas “speech endowed with Nous is a gift of God, speech without Nous is a finding of man” (V.3). When we act with Nous, we act properly and for the development and good of our souls. When we act without Nous, we act only for the benefit of the body. The soul, however, is insensible, invisible, and immortal, while the body is mortal, corruptible, and temporary. The Definitions are getting pretty clear where we should set our priorities; after all, “just as you will behave towards your soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body” (VI.3).